|Safe Backcountry Skiing for Colorado Hut Skiers
Please known this website is not intended to be instructional in nature but rather a guide for backcountry users who already have the requisite training, experience, and knowledge for the activities they choose. If you do not have the required skill set, please consider hiring a guide service or easing your goals. Please see our FAQ for guide service suggestions.
An advanced level of expertise and physical conditioning is necessary for even the "easiest" of the routes described here. Proper clothing and equipment is essential. Failure to have the necessary knowledge, equipment, and conditioning will subject you to extreme physical danger, injury, or death. Some routes have changed and others will change; avalanche hazards may have expanded or new hazards may have formed since this book's publication.
In the alpine terrain above Francie's Cabin. Take care, and this could be you on your next trip!
Are You Ready? Who Should Use the Huts And Trails
Now that huts can make snow-camping unnecessary for backcountry skiing, it may take less skill and vigor to enjoy the winter wilds than it did in previous years. Even so, you still need a given level of skill and strength to travel safely on the trails described on HutSki.com, and you must know your limits.
Weather can turn the easiest routes into dangerous epics, and illness, injury, or navigation problems can force you into a bivouac. What's more, alternate and branch routes we cover run the gamut of winter challenge and risk.
Colorado hut routes (especially the 10th Mountain and Summit huts trails) travel to and from cozy shelters; but these are full-bore treks, not "day trips." To ski any of these routes you may have to break trail in deep powder and navigate with zero visibility all at altitudes over 8,000 feet. In short: no route in this book is an easy backcountry trail, no such thing exists! Thus, you should be at least an intermediate-level backcountry skier to enjoy these trails without a guide.
Only several routes covered here are suitable for beginners -- anyone with little to no backcountry skiing experience should travel in the company of more experienced persons. Also, novice skiers can always hire a guide service to insure a safe, fun hut trip.
Avalanche danger is the most well-known risk in the winter backcountry. Fortunately, slide danger is minimal or nonexistent on the 10th Mountain suggested routes. Yet skiers who venture from the beaten path are sure to encounter slide terrain. Once buried by an avalanche, you have less than a 50 percent chance of survival up to the first half hour, and no chance after that. Even if the slide does not bury you, just the savage ride down a mountain is likely to kill you from physical trauma.
The most important part of avalanche safety is hazard recognition. You can easily identify slopes where snowslides are possible: basically, any treeless or sparsely timbered slope steeper than 25 degrees. By learning about snowslides, you can practice hazard recognition and avoidance, and safely travel through moderate avalanche terrain. Formal training through avalanche school is a good place to start learning. To supplement your schooling, use weather reports and local avalanche hazard forecasts. Speak with local mountaineers about current conditions. Finally, go out and practice. One rule bears constant emphasis: EXPOSE ONE PERSON AT A TIME TO HAZARD. You do this by traveling one at a time through exposed areas, or by spreading your group out on routes that have repeated exposure.
Avalanche danger varies with the season. Midwinter in Colorado is always dangerous, but there is usually an eight to twelve week corn-snow season in the spring with more predictable hazard. This spring season is the time to enjoy ski runs off the high peaks. To be safe, you have to get up early and ski before the late morning thaw. The 10th Mountain huts are closed during most of the alpine corn-snow season, but if you're lucky, you can catch a few days of "hut corn" towards the end of April.
For more avalanche safety information check this page, and consider taking an avalanche safety course (check the AIARE website or guide services for avalanche course information.
Though avalanches are a bewitching hazard that gets top billing in the media, illness and ski falls account for most lost days and rescues related to 10th Mountain hut skiing. At the altitude of the Colorado Plateau, you have about half the oxygen and humidity you get at sea level. For visitors from lower elevations these changes can cause sickness, even death from altitude sickness. The only sure way you can prevent altitude problems is by acclimating in steps. If you come from sea level, get to Colorado 48 hours before a hut trip. If you cannot schedule extra days, try to spend your first hut nights at some of the lower-elevation huts, such as the McNamara Hut, lodging in the Fryingpan River valley, or the Harry Gates Hut.
If you must go high without acclimation, stay hydrated and don't exhaust yourself. Eat more carbohydrates for several days before you leave. Lower your salt intake and take iron pills. Above all, don't drink alcohol; it amplifies the effect of altitude. If you must have beer and wine, use low-alcohol brands.
If you're acclimated and fit, but still feel awful (headache and malaise) after a day on the trail, chances are you're dehydrated. In one day of ski touring you can lose more than a gallon of water from sweating, breathing dry air, and the diuretic effect of the cold. In addition, coffee and alcohol are diuretics. Reduce dehydration in several ways: To begin, limit your morning coffee to one cup, and tank up on water before you hit the trail. Then, since humans are not camels, stop and drink several ounces of water at least once an hour. Try athletic drink mixes you add to water. These are quickly absorbed and supply some calories. Another trick is to put a quarter of a lemon in your water bottle. This will flavor fill-ups for about a week.
If you use a drinking tube system such as a Camel Back, know how to prevent it from freezing. The tube should be insulated and stored in a zippered insulated slot in your pack strap. After sipping, blow air into the tube and raise it above your head to drain fluid back into the bladder. Fill the drinking bladder with warm rather than cold water, and insulate it as well. Have a backup plan so you can hydrate if your sip tube does freeze; usually done by simply knowing how to get the bladder out of your pack and opened up without making a mess.
Also, when traveling in cold temperatures consider carrying a small thermos bottle. The psychological value of a few warm sips can not be overestimated.
No matter how careful you are, you will probably be slightly dehydrated when you arrive at the hut. Thus, it is critical to drink as you step in the door. How to tell if you are you are hydrated? The answer is crude but effective: the more yellow the snow, the more water you should drink.
What If Things Go Wrong?
Mountains are a dangerous place for us fragile humans; no matter how careful we are, human error can strike. Thus, you should always be ready to handle your or someone else's emergency. To do so, you should be skilled in first and secondary aid, as well as moving an injured person over snow. Gain these skills by taking first-aid courses and studying books. In Colorado, all search and rescue is done by expert teams under the direction of the county sheriff. Organized rescue groups aside, you must remember that an expedient rescue begins in the field with the victim and their party. Follow these guidelines:
Before you leave on a trip, be sure someone in civilization knows of your route and schedule. This person should notify the county sheriff if you are overdue. Even with this arrangement, you will not get immediate help. Thus, you must handle things yourself.
In the case of an accident or illness, your first step in the field is to give the proper first aid. Next, move the person to a hut or bivouac. If you decide you need a rescue, send someone out for help. In a party of two, the victim will have to be left alone.
The person who goes for help should have a USGS map clearly marked with the location of the victim. He should ski with care to the nearest phone. To initiate the rescue, it's necessary to call the sheriff of the county in which the victim is located.
If the sheriff decides you need a rescue, he may authorize a helicopter. If you're not staying at a hut, bivouac as close as you can to a likely landing site. Mark your location with a large figure stamped in the snow. An SOS or an arrow pointing to your exact location will do fine. A smoky fire can help by acting as a signal and showing wind direction. Anchor all your gear to withstand the hurricane winds of helicopter rotors. If you haven't had time to construct good markers, you'll have to signal the aircraft with your body. To do so, wear bright clothing, lay down in an open area, and wave your arms. Before nearing an operating helicopter, secure all your loose clothing, and carry skis at hip level horizontal to the ground.
A cellular phone can be extremely helpful in the event of an emergency. Please note that communication with cell phones is not possible at all backcountry locations nor at all the huts. Generally, if you can't connect try moving to higher ground. For reliable communication consider carrying a satellite phone.
Note that rescue is costly. While victims in Colorado are not usually billed for their rescues, county governments may get saddled with huge costs. To mitigate the costs of rescue, the state of Colorado has a rescue reimbursement fund financed by a surcharge on all hunting, fishing, and off-highway-vehicle licenses, as well as a “backcountry rescue certificate” available where hunting and fishing licenses are sold. Any person or entity that incurs costs in a rescue can apply to the fund for reimbursement, provided the person rescued had one of the licenses mentioned above. HutSki.com encourages all hut users to make sure they’re covered by the rescue fund, by purchasing a license or certificate.